by Dick Dace
When Barbara invited me to join her family holiday on Fano, an island where her family has vacationed for more than forty years, I was thrilled. When she told me the houses were built by hobbits, the beaches were covered in jewels, and dragons flew in the sky, I said, Absolutely!
Fano is a small, picture-perfect barrier island in the North Sea. People from all over northern Europe flock to the island, not just for the sun or plethora of seashells, but for the ruby-red, blood-orange, and daffodil-yellow amber, the fossilized tree sap from the Jurassic period. This gorgeous garnet brings people from around the world and to their knees to dig through the flotsam and jetsam pushed ashore by southwestern storms.
They arrive promptly at 10 am, in any weather, rain or shine, and flock like birds to one of the widest and deepest beachs in the world. The beaches were broadened by the north sea’s currents that have moved thousands of tons of Moroccan sand from Sylt, its neighboring island.
“I found one!” Barbara screamed, to no one in particular. Did she really jump up and down?
I confess I wanted to know the size and color, but instead I said nothing, and doubled my efforts.
Fano is only accessible by a twenty-minute ferry ride from Esbjerg, Denmark, a vibrant port city with regularly scheduled service to Iceland and Norway. This tiny paradise is a summer and winter playground for anyone looking for the perfect beach getaway with beautiful scenery and adorable wild animals, which reminded me: Where are those dragons?
While no Game of Thrones-worthy winged reptile yet, by day two, I had checked off gem-covered beaches and now, hobbit-built homesteads. Slung low, close to the ground, their roofs made from local reeds, the homes remarkably resemble Bilbo Baggins’ cottage in the Shire. And Fano’s answer to the Shire is every bit as magical. Practical too, especially for tourists, as more than 300 homes on the island are for rent, many with a pool or sauna, and able to comfortably accommodate 6, 8, even 12 people.
Originally, Fano was a center for shipbuilding and whale hunting. After the invention of the steamship, Fano reinvented itself as a place for those seeking a seaside cure. People still come to Fano for what ails them to this day, enjoying its sea breezes and its sun. And those dragons!
Whether they pushed the pronunciation a little bit, or I was guilty of magical hearing, I eventually discovered that my friends were actually saying Drachens, the Germany word for kites. Some days, the Fano sky is so filled with kites there isn’t a lot of room for dragons. Some kites are so large, people use them to surf the sand, or to pull their three-wheeled buggies back and forth along the beach. The display is vibrant, constantly moving, with geometric shapes in rainbow colors zipping, swooping, curving, and diving against a brilliant blue background. No surprise Fano is home to several national kite flying clubs.
But not all the charming sights of Fano are overhead. In fact, one of the many perks of waking up early on Fano is watching the local inhabitants begin their day. Standing in the kitchen one morning, I spied a white tail, four-point buck, crossing the road in front of our house near the beach. His mother must have loved him very much, because he looked both ways before crossing. Within seconds, a large jack rabbit just flat out ran (pun intended) and leaped across the street with a hop and a jump.
After lunch one day, Barbara’s brother Hansjoerg and I took a bicycle tour of the island, which at its longest point, is about five miles long. Scattered across the island are more than 300 monolithic concrete anti-aircraft above-ground bunkers that the Germans built during World War II to protect the it from an Allied invasion. The largest, now mostly buried by the dunes, has only two turrets and one entrance visible. They’ve all seem to have been forgotten except one, located near the beach, and noticeable by the “Free Love” emblazoned on its side by a local graphic artist. Today, its more practical use is as a marker for where to park one’s car.
Another afternoon, we went on safari, which, granted, sounds a bit out of the ordinary for a placid island getaway. But it was extraordinary because it was an oyster safari. No pith helmet required.
Apparently, cargo ships have entered port with several hundred stowaway Gulf Oysters on board. When the ship flushed its bilge water, the oysters were deposited directly into the delicate ecosystem of Fano. These oysters filter a gallon of water an hour. The local clams filter only a gallon of water a day. Making oyster safaris a very valuable ecological tool to try to keep this invasive species in check. Our guide, Thomas, took us to the port side of the harbor, and with buckets in-hand, we walked out into the water. And walked. And walked. It took my fellow safari mates and I nearly an hour at steady pace—45 minutes to be exact—before the waters began to rise above our ankles. I started to wonder if Sylt had any beaches left. At that point, all we had to do was simply reach down and within five minutes, pull up a bucketful of three-to four-year-old oysters.
Thomas showed us several ways to eat our harvest. He started a charcoal fire, and roasted the oysters in their own juices for several few minutes, before opening and adding different toppings to the oysters, including strawberries, pico de gallo and Italian dressing. We decided that the ones we liked best were the oysters served raw, straight from the shell.
Soon, our week on Fano was over. However, renting a shire-style bungalow is as easy as it is convenient, and instead of sad goodbyes, conversation quickly turned to planning our return. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that within a year, we would all be back, in a cottage complete with a furnished kitchen and all the other amenities of home, affording us the opportunity to meet locals and other travelers, and actually “live” this island life. While it’s great fun to take turns cooking, if we decided not to, we had a more than generous selection of restaurants on the island, everyone serving the freshest fish. If you prefer a less do-it-your-self type of vacation, there are a few hotels and guest houses available. But no matter where you decide to stay, you’re sure to find, as I did, that Fano is the perfect place to find a truly magical adventure—dragons, or drachens, included.